Commentary

Rory McIlroy salvages lost 2013

Updated: December 2, 2013, 4:19 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

The ball barely making it to the hole, Rory McIlroy watching it tumble over the front edge and into the cup, the strange sound of murmuring and groaning enveloping the green at Royal Sydney on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy
Mark Metcalfe/Getty ImagesRory McIlroy's 2013 season isn't finished. He'll play the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, hosted by Tiger Woods, this coming week in California.

In a finish befitting the other sporting events of the weekend, McIlroy stunned the heavily pro-Adam Scott crowd in Australia with a 72nd-hole birdie to steal the Australian Open and win for the first time in a long, frustrating 2013 season.

In doing so, he put an end to the Scotty Slam, denying the Masters champion a final victory in what was a month-long coronation and celebration of his Masters victory in April.

As disappointing as the outcome was for Scott, the victory was huge for McIlroy, 24, who suffered through a tumultuous season that saw him beginning the year ranked No. 1 in the world, only to fall hard off his lofty perch.

"I wanted to get a win by the end of the season and finally I've been able to get one," said McIlroy, whose final-round 66 overcame a 4-stroke deficit to begin Sunday. "But more satisfying is being able to take on one of the best players in the world down the stretch and to come out on top.

"I feel a bit sorry that I was the one to ruin the Triple Crown for him. But I'm very happy. Adam is a credit to the game and a credit to this country."

McIlroy's graciousness was impressive considering the rather shocking end to his slump and the tournament; nobody would have blamed the Northern Irishman had he been at a loss for words.

The Australian television commentators, including 1991 Open Championship winner Ian Baker-Finch, certainly had trouble describing what they had just witnessed. Clearly wanting to see Scott finish off a remarkable Aussie summer and overall season with a fifth worldwide victory, they had to regroup and offer credit where it was due.

"It shows how fickle the game of golf can be," Baker-Finch said.

McIlroy began the day four strokes behind Scott, tied it with an eagle-birdie flurry at the seventh and eighth holes, then fell a stroke behind at the ninth and was never able to close that gap until the unlikely events of the 18th.

When Scott's approach to the final hole bounded over the green, there was an opening. McIlroy knocked his to 12 feet, and when Scott hit a poor chip and two-putted for bogey, suddenly McIlroy had a chance to win. And did.

Scott, 33, said afterward that he hit too much club for his second to the 18th, lamented a putter gone cold and was "gutted" by the outcome.

No doubt.

The reigning Masters champ was about to accomplish quite the impressive feat, victories in all three of Australia's biggest tournaments. Only Robert Allenby in 2005 had ever swept all three events in the same year.

Scott had brought the green jacket Down Under, a gift to his countrymen as part of a November victory lap in which he celebrated his Masters triumph while also playing in Australia's three major golf tournaments -- not to mention the World Cup, which he and Jason Day captured the team title a week ago.

But Scott did more than just show up and show off the symbol of his most significant victory.

He won the Australian PGA, completing a career sweep of the Aussie biggies. He defended his title at the Talisker Masters. And then after teaming with Day to win the World Cup (where Scott was third in the individual portion), he seemed poised for the Aussie Triple Crown.

Scott shot an opening-round 62, and then weathered McIlroy's challenge all weekend, playing the final 36 holes head to head, forging a 4-shot advantage and then clinging to a 1-stroke edge as the putts failed to drop Sunday.

The Aussie had numerous chances to put McIlroy away, burning the edge on more cups than he could count. The telling numbers: Scott had 24 putts in shooting 62 on Thursday, but took 34 on Sunday in a 71.

And, finally, McIlroy took advantage.

It has been a strange year for McIlroy, who won his last tournament 53 weeks ago in Dubai to cap a season in which he claimed the money titles on both the PGA Tour and European Tour while also claiming each circuit's player of the year honors.

He entered 2013 as a solid No. 1, armed with a multimillion-dollar Nike endorsement deal. But by March, McIlroy had yet to contend in a tournament and eventually dropped to No. 6 in the world.

There were issues with his clubs and his confidence, not to mention off-the-course problems with his management company that led to an on-going legal battle. Having won a major championship in 2011 and 2012, he was a non-factor in the big ones in 2013.

It all seemingly added up to a lost year, but McIlroy began to find some form through a season-ending trek that has seen him play five tournaments -- with one to go next week at the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge.

"I never lost belief," McIlroy said. "Golf is a long career and I'm only 24, but perhaps I pushed a little too hard this year."

It would have been easy to bank the appearance fee McIlroy received for going to Sydney and allow Scott to bask in his country's adulation. Nobody would have found fault with McIlroy coming in second given the circumstances, and certainly there were numerous opportunities to slink away.

But McIlroy never did. He held firm against arguably the best player in the world at the moment, and swiped away the trophy when Scott blinked.

The ending was stunning, no doubt. But for McIlroy, plenty satisfying.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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